Mobile apps: progress report

The progress of business travel app technology has slowed, so what is the hold-up, asks Linda Fox?

When mobile first hit the business travel community a few years ago it felt like an unstoppable wave. Everyone was expected to have a mobile application even if they weren’t too sure what to put on it.

As with every new technological invention, things have moved on since then. Nowadays, everybody – from travel management companies to technology providers – has an app with itinerary management services at very least. Many apps also have some booking functionality, but whether they do or not tends to come down to what the corporate is seeking, for its travellers as well as the sort of trip being booked. 

Clarity Travel Management chief executive Pat McDonagh explains: “Mobile is still at its most useful in the management of a trip itinerary, and the vast majority of bookings are still done using larger devices. High-value bookings, in particular, are likely to remain dominated by larger devices and even off-line booking modes for some time.” 

But, he says, there is a growing confidence with smaller value bookings, and while once mobile was a “box-ticker” in the RFP (request for proposal) process, it’s now a must-have, with buyers wanting to know about what functionality TMCs can offer as well as development plans going forward. 

HRG director of group technology Nigel Meyer agrees and says large companies, in particular, are pushing for a “digital workplace of some description”, which is being driven from the top down.
McDonagh adds that many travel managers are also now asking for the same travel policy, authorisation process and content to be made available via the app. 

The pace of change
With the basics in place, more recently the pace of development seems to have slowed from what mobile should be able to offer the business travel community in theory, to what happens in practice.

McDonagh sees mobile as a huge opportunity for the travel management community in terms of the ability to offer services, such as itinerary access, on-trip information, e-tickets, disruption information and the ability to amend a trip if plans change. 

He adds, however, that currently travellers are putting all this together themselves. “The TMC challenge and opportunity is getting all of this in one place, on one app,” he says. “We can simplify the management of a trip while still ensuring travellers remain on programme and within policy.”

While the promise is there, it seems developments have stagnated in the past year. Roadmap CEO Jeroen van Velzen puts the lack of progress down to existing technology providers supplying corporates with just enough functionality to keep them happy, and the lack of a real desire for change.

The key, he believes, is for companies to start thinking in terms of the employee experience. But he feels this is not on the radar of many human resources teams and that many travel managers work on a more reactive basis than proactive.

Van Velzen adds that very few are getting the real value from mobile, which is functionality that might actually influence behaviour, because they are simply not asking providers for more. He also says corporates need to decide what brings more value – having more productive travellers on the road, or savings.

A single mobile app
While the dream of a single mobile app is still alive, it’s not one that is going to come true any time soon. American Express GBT sees evolution for mobile in blending all the developments into “a single, seamless, multi-channel digital user experience”. 

Amex vice-president Evan Konwiser adds: “An improved multi-channel experience will allow travellers to access services and applications at each stage of their trip as and when they need them.”

But he acknowledges there are challenges. “Achieving this streamlined functionality from the research phase to post journey requires consistency across platforms, which can be difficult to accomplish,” he says. “This is particularly true in the global arena, as it requires significant investment in underlying systems and platforms, strong relationships with suppliers, a multi-channel approach to enable effective integration with those partners and tight integration with the offline channel.”

Roadmap’s Van Velzen sees some cause for optimism, with a lot of companies out there that do “get it” when it comes to the potential for mobile in business travel. “They tend to have big travel teams which allows them to get out of the reactive model and take a more strategic view on what travel management is,” he says. “They can look forward to it in 3-5 years’ time.” 

Testing functionality
One travel management company that believes it has positioned itself well in terms of mobile development and strategy is HRG. The TMC has decided to separate its app development from the rest of its systems – a move more akin to the agile start-up world than an established business travel player. 

Meyer says HRG’s app is now the place where it often tests functionality first. The thinking behind having the app independent from other systems is about being able to develop functionality quickly, without being hampered by legacy systems.

A great deal of HRG’s current focus is on contextual messages via mobile, which Meyer says seems to resonate with customers. The TMC is focusing on services around an existing itinerary, such as informing travellers if there is a delay and providing them with onward transport information, such as a car hire provider, when they arrive at a destination.

Additional functionality is provided by prompting travellers to the next steps in the booking process. For example, if they have just booked a flight, it offers them three relevant hotels without them having to go into the online booking tool.

Meyer says: “It’s all about the context in terms of you, your company and the moment in time, and where you are in that journey.” He adds that the aim is to make things as simple as possible with one action triggering another.

Data capture is playing a big role in the development of the app. It is helping HRG join some dots in the journey. For example, the use of virtual cards shows when a traveller has checked into a hotel – which, in turn, can help with tracking and safety obligations. “As we move into the world of proactive messaging, we are using the data to drive the service, whereas today we use the traveller,” says Meyer. 

Disruption alerts 
Despite the seemingly slow march of mobile in the corporate travel world, there are still a number of developments in various areas that will make for an improved experience for travellers. Travelport Resolve – a mobile service alerting travellers when there is a disruption and enabling them to book a suitable hotel locally – is a good example. 

The technology, launched this summer, is aimed at airlines but the company says it has had approaches from the travel management community to see if they might be able to access the same disruption data being provided to carriers.

Conventional wisdom may say that airlines should be biting off Travelport’s hand to get hold of Resolve, especially given the $60 billion estimated annual cost of disruption to airlines. But, the company says, although feedback has been positive, it’s waiting for that first customer.

Dan Westbrook, Travelport’s vice-president and general manager of airlines, says: “They want to get out of the situation of long lines of people upset and angry about what is about to happen. With Resolve, each person can be taken care of almost before they get off the plane.”

What’s interesting about the technology is it was an idea that began with the company looking at its own data and what problems might be solved. It then went through Travelport Labs – the company’s start-up ‘accelerator’.

Chatbot fatigue
A more general development in the industry is chatbots – although there already seems to be some chatbot fatigue setting in as more companies declare an interest. What the technology might offer is where it gets more interesting – the ability to have a single and ongoing conversation with a customer. 

One industry figure, Cartrawler technology chief Bobby Healy, highlighted the value of that recently, saying it’s the concept of “continuous conversation with the customer for an entire year” that’s most exciting. 

Healy was speaking at the Aviation Festival in London in September. He believes chatbots can mean richer data about the customer, leading to the airlines providing a far better and more tailored offering. He also says the chat interface can help manage all the elements along the journey when things go wrong by being with the customer and keeping them informed.

It’s obvious that this technology will make for a smoother traveller experience, but it’s not hard to see where the travel management community might also derive value in terms of providing in-trip help or perhaps support throughout the trip for those less well-travelled.

There is much work to be done to unlock the value of mobile, but momentum is gathering for the next mobile phase.

Buyer’s view

John Pryor, fleet and travel manager, Arcadia Group 

“The Clarity mobile itinerary app has been of great benefit to our travellers. It provides the full details of our travel itineraries. Most importantly, it will also provide push notifications to advise our travellers of any impending delays to their flights before departure, which allows them to make alternative plans, if necessary.

We have used the app to add in personal itinerary details as well, so if we have additional meeting venues we can add these addresses into the itinerary, giving us just one place for all the information. 

The online check-in options provide all the airport gate information, which helps our travellers avoid having to carry additional paperwork. It also helps by having the TMC contact details for 24-hour service when required.

We are currently considering a move for our online bookings to Clarity’s online booking system – this will also enable us to use the soon-to-be released booking app Go2mobile, as we have a high percentage of rail and hotel reservations, which are more likely to be booked via mobile than complex flight bookings.”

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